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The American Presidency: One biography at a time

A Christmas gift launches a reading project into the lives and times of our 44 Oval Office occupants.
Washington: A Life book cover

Washington: A Life book cover

Several years ago, a friend gave me Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life for Christmas. Putting aside my normal fare of books about how the brain works and philosophic theories of life seemed a good idea. Little did I realize that Chernow’s book would spark a commitment to read a biography of every president, in order of their administrations.

The journey is taking me through very personal studies in leadership and American history. I am seeing patterns of political thought that seem to survive through the ages. Reading Chernow’s book I was struck by how Washington’s world, though without the technological trappings, resembled our own in many ways. Many of Washington’s personal and political struggles could have been the stories about politicians today.

As a leader, Washington strove to influence and inspire others, always keeping an eye on his legacy. Despite his successes, the “father of our country” ended his presidency desperate to go home and with few personal friends. Throughout his two terms in office, the first president was buffeted by politicians – within his own cabinet – championing emotionally charged, often polar opposite points of view about the role of government. Thomas Jefferson espoused the virtues of limited government;  Alexander Hamilton wanted to advance civilization by expanding government. I was always moved by the heroic images of Washington, the warrior. But Chernow shows us a man alternately working in desperation and favored by what can only be called “blind luck.”

Gaining insights into leadership (both inspired and ineffective), history (rich with the human drama) and political thought (in different times and circumstances) are goals for my presidential reading project. I am two and a half years in and up to President #11, James Polk. The project is only getting more interesting and complex.

Reading stories of presidents with overlapping histories, friends, enemies and acquaintances allows me to examine these leaders and their times from multiple viewpoints. Each successive story advances the historical timeline ever so slightly, so I am able to experience a historical event from gradually advancing points of view.

I have seen the Constitutional Convention from the perspectives of a war tempered Washington, a politically driven John Adams, a wonkish Madison and youthful John Quincy Adams.  I’ve heard arguments for and against the Louisiana Purchase from John Adams, who saw a presidency with federal power strong enough to make this deal; from a reluctant President Thomas Jefferson, who balked at wielding presidential power in that way; and from James Monroe, the Secretary of State, abroad in France, who saw the acquisition as a deal too good to pass up.

In the end, it was James Monroe who probably deserved credit for the Louisiana Purchase. This pattern of cabinet member as uncredited architect of some historic event would happen again with John Quincy Adams and the Monroe Doctrine. As President James Monroe’s Secretary of State, Adams drafted the basis for the doctrine which would eventually bear Monroe’s name.

These are just a few examples of how my reading project provides a more three-dimensional understanding of the history of our presidents and our country. At this point, several patterns and one nagging issue have emerged.

First, the 11 American presidents I have read about so far seem to share an innate drive to hold this position of power, and it has nothing to do with happiness. They are driven by a sense of duty, or by the need to leave a legacy. John Quincy Adams seems unique in that he seems to have sought the presidency as a way to fulfill his mother’s and father’s expectations for him. He seemed much happier as a member of the House of Representatives; he served there for 16 years following his presidency.

A second pattern I’ve noticed is that many presidents were more successful before taking office; most notably John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren. All, except Madison, were one-term presidents, and each ran into challenges in office that were unlike any they had faced before. The results were not always positive.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jul 4, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

I would love to see Schieber's reading list, as well as his alternates. Is he focusing on full biographies, or just snapshots of key passages, such as Goodwin's "Team of Rivals." Do autobiographies make the list?

Oh, and one other characteristic early America seems to have in common with today -- a large percentage of wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small group of people.

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 11:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Kudos on your quest! I'm also on a quest to read a biography of every president in order since my wife bought me a Washington biography for Christmas, and I've been blogging about my insights along the way, with a humorous but informative slant at http://ploddingthroughthepresidents.blogspot.com

You're further along than I am -- I'm finishing Madison now -- and I'd love to hear more thoughts on your journey.

HowardD

Posted Wed, Jul 9, 4:45 p.m. Inappropriate

@HowardD Great to hear I have a comrade in reading. Will be great to share authors and viewpoints. I will look at your blog.

Posted Wed, Jul 9, 4:51 p.m. Inappropriate

@HowardBaldwin I am reading full biographies and full many are, the Washington book 800+ pages and many of the others over 500. I will include the list so far in another post.
Indeed up through Van Buren you saw men coming from wealthy backgrounds (VanBuren's father was an innkeeper, immigrated from The Netherlands), though most seemed to be in debt most of their professional lives. Strange phenomenon of debt with the wealthy.

Posted Thu, Jul 10, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Howard,

Per your request for Craig's presidential reading list, here are the titles, through Zachary Taylor:

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
John Adams by David McCullough
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by John Meacham
James Madison and the Making of America by Kevin R.C. Gutzman
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel
American Lion by Jon Meacham
Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer
William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins
John Tyler by Gary May
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency of America by Walter Borneman
Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest by K. Jack Bauer

Mary Bruno
Crosscut Editor-in-chief

Posted Thu, Jul 10, 9:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Readers,
I found two slightly humorous edits.
(first sentence of second page) “John Adams, for example, was pushed into supporting the highly questionable Alien and Sedition Acts, even though he long challenged (should be championed) free speech.”

(last pragraph on Polk) “He has just taken office, and accepted a congressional resolution to annex Texas - a move supported by his successor (should be predecessor) John Tyler.”

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